April 10, 2020

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris

UPDATE! PBS will be airing “Seeing in the Dark” once again on Wenesday, June 11th at 8pm.

Most astronomers are amateurs at heart. To be sure, some come into the field via theoretical physics, but few can resist the urge to peek through a telescope. The PBS Documentary “Seeing in the Dark” by Timothy Ferris does a huge service to the passion of astronomy. Originally a companion book of the same name, the documentary is now available via Netflix, which is how I successfully caught it. It’s a shame that PBS seems to have only aired it once! I love the fact that the much debated term “amateur” is swiftly disposed of right at the beginning as “someone who does something simply for the love of it”. In America, the term has unfortunately become associated with the unskilled novice. I’ve known many Astronomy clubs where the members, some quite advanced or professionals themselves, rankle at the very thought of being called “amateurs”. Warning! A room full of slide rule throwing techno-nerds can be dangerous!

A broad swath of amateur astronomer culture is covered, from eagle-eyed veteran observer Steven O’Meara, a self described “19th century observer stuck in the 21st century” to NFL running back and astronomy enthusiast Robert Smith. O’Meara, for example, spotted spokes in Saturn’s rings prior to the Voyager fly bys; Smith, like many of us, simply loves to hold impromptu side walk star parties. The film utilizes only one professional astronomer, San Francisco Universities’ Debra Fischer, who is on the cutting edge of the search for exoplanets. Fischer acknowledges that “there aren’t enough professionals to carry out the intense monitoring necessary.” The same could be said for the sub fields of variable star, asteroid, and comet discovery. in fact, until the rise of automated telescopes (which some amateurs now have!) nearly all of these discoveries were made by the lone observer.

Ferris traces his own passion for astronomy from his childhood, which is dramatized by his own son for the film, up into his present day exploits.

Cool Tip from the movie… one suburban astronomer covers a nearby street lamp with a barb-e-que grill! This is a low tech innovation to combat light pollution. The film points out that only 1 in 5 persons has ever seen the Milky Way. Another lamp post defeating tip that I’ve heard of is to aim a tripod mounted laser at the light’s daytime sensor. Just be sure not to leave it unattended (it can cause blindness!) and that your laser won’t burn out after a few minutes of continuous use.

I especially liked how the images through the eyepiece were rendered true to life; the director is obviously a master observer as this detail is often over looked in more slick Discovery Channel type productions in favor of glitzy Hubble photos. I’ve even seen these absurd eyepiece views in a museum exhibit that shall not be mentioned!  These often set up the novice observer for disappointment.

I particularly liked the term “visual athlete” used to describe skilled observers. (Did Ferris coin this term?) Some, such as featured amateur Michael Copelman, do follow up observations of Gamma-ray bursts. This is on the extreme cutting edge. Copelman, as well as Ferris, are also skilled musicians. There seems to be a long tradition of this since the time of Herschel, and I wonder if their are more astronomer/musicians out there. I myself own and play three guitars… perhaps an astro-band is in the offing? If anything, it would give us some thing to do on cloudy nights…

Some of the advances in technology are shown in the film, such as the rise of digital imaging and  instant global alert systems.  I myself can remember wandering the halls of the Lunar and Planetary Lab and the University of Arizona in Tucson, looking at black and white slides of Jupiter and Mars. Such images were grainy and course. Such pictures were also prevalent in the astronomy texts of my youth. But they represented the best astrophotographers could do right up until about 20 years ago; now anyone with modest equipment can routinely surpass this!

A companion web site for the documentary can be found at;


Check out “Seeing in the dark”; it’s worth hunting for! And if your local Astronomy club hasn’t screened it yet, ask them why not!


  1. Hi, Dave; thought you’d like to know that “Seeing in the Dark” is to air again on PBS at eight p.m. Wednesday, June 11. In high-def, of course…

    All best, tf

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